To say Sarah Raphael’s life and career path - so far - has been somewhat of a fruitful one would be a very big understatement, as Marguerite learnt during our interview with this month’s Woman of Influence. Since being head-hunted by Kate Ward in 2015 to launch Refinery29, Raphael has worked her way to becoming the leading global media company’s Editor at Large. Focused on young women, R29 aims to inspires, entertain, and empower their audience through optimistic and diverse storytelling, experiences, and points of view. On top of her editorial role, Raphael: works as a youth worker for Baytree, the social inclusion charity for women and girls based in the heart of Brixton; lectures at London College of Fashion; and is also writing a book. During our conversation, Raphael explains why Nawal El Saadawi is the most inspiring woman she has interviewed, discusses her favourite commissions since joining R29 and shines a light on which publications she respects for advocating women in the workplace.
How long have you been the Editor at Large at Refinery29?
I started at Refinery29 in October 2015 as editor and was tasked with launching the UK site. I was promoted to editorial director after a year, then moved to editor-at-large in November 2017. My friends make fun of me with my ‘at large’ title saying it’s like a nature programme “the rhinoceros is still at large – we cannot locate him”. So now I work three days a week at R29, one day a week as a youth worker at a charity with a group of teenage girls, and then the other day / evenings and weekends, I’m writing a non-fiction book about technology and emotions.
Have you always wanted to work in the publishing industry?
I didn’t know publishing was an option. I come from a family of doctors and all we talked about was medicine and the NHS. Writing and the media were never in my eye line. But I read an article in The Times during the summer holidays when I was 17 about drink driving in young adults and wrote a letter to the editor suggesting they take a look at the amount of parents who drink drive too. I was gobsmacked when the letter was accepted and published. After that, journalism started to look like a viable option for me.
Can you tell me a bit about your career path - how you got to where you are today?
I studied English Literature at Queen Mary University in Mile End and worked two jobs in my spare time. One was as a runner in production at The Guardian on a Saturday which I did for four years, sat opposite the now editor and then creative director listening to them argue over headlines. My other job was as a promo girl selling tequila shots in clubs and working at the Emirates Stadium, going around with the Arsenal mascot Gunnersaurus during half time with a loud speaker and firing football shirts into the crowd through a canon. That one really brought me out of my shell. I then did a Masters at London College of Fashion in Fashion Journalism and interned at Nick Knight’s SHOWstudio while doing my dissertation. Then my boss at SHOWstudio (Laura Bradley) moved to i-D magazine and took me with her. I interned there for a few months and then battled it out against three other interns for the coveted job of editorial assistant. I wrote a list of 20 reasons why they should hire me including “I turned down Dizzee Rascal for a date”. I got the job and helped launch the i-D website and digital platforms. Shortly after I became online editor, and had a wild few years doing that job, travelling all over the world to fashion weeks, partying with the Prince of Venice and Picasso’s granddaughter at the Biennale, travelling to Beijing for magazine cover shoots, interviewing mega celebrities and film stars like Donatella Versace and Ryan Gosling, putting on a club night in Shoreditch, hosting a radio show on NTS (which was awful!), and going on the Today Programme on Radio 4 to talk about a comment Benjamin Netanyahu had made about blue jeans. I was promoted to deputy editor of the mag, which I did for a year and then decided I’d had quite enough of media and moved to Buenos Aires for a year where I mainly just partied and enjoyed the sunshine, but also wrote freelance pieces for Vice, The Guardian, Grazia and The British Journal of Photography. I also taught wealthy Argentinian kids journalism, and dance! A family emergency brought me back to London and that was a terrible time. But on the bright side, my boss at i-D (the editor-in-chief, Holly Shackleton) was going on maternity leave, and asked me to cover her, so I went back and edited three issues of the magazine and headed up digital, which was so much fun, before being headhunted by my now boss Kate Ward to help her launch R29 in the UK.
Do you have a favourite article that you have written since joining Refinery29?
I went to Calais to volunteer in the Jungle a few times, and interviewed refugees in the camps, as well as grassroots organisations like Help Refugees and long-term volunteers. I wrote a few big feature on that called ‘The Lost Boys’. Another feature I was proud of was one I did on women and religion, photographing and interviewing women who work in the creative industries in the UK, and who are practicing Jews/ Muslims/ Christians/ Sikhs, about how religion shapes their lives.
Do you have a writing process?
I have to listen to techno or house music! I listen to the same 5 or 6 songs on repeat as I write. The R29 office is open plan and busy, so I need the music to help me zone out. I spend a long time on sentences and flow, and I read everything a silly amount of times before publishing it.
Do you get lots of young women reaching out to you at Refinery29 with regards to advice on starting out as a young professional/seeking general advice?
Yes, on email and LinkedIn. I get around 500 emails a day though, so it can be hard to reply to everyone and I don’t like giving generic advice to people I’ve never met because in this industry, everyone’s path is different. I prefer face to face mentoring so I can really understand what that person’s strengths are and where they want to go before I dole out the advice. There are a handful of young women who I mentor long-term and have close relationships with. I’ve also been lecturing at London College of Fashion the past few months, and doing one to one tutorials with the Masters students is a great opportunity to give advice, if they want it!
Can you tell me what other publications you respect for their focus on advocating women in the workplace?
The Gentlewoman, Gal Dem. Guardian Women, Telegraph Women, Woman’s Hour. I love the Guilty Feminist podcast. I spoke on a panel about the gender pay gap at AllBright last week, a brilliant collective and network supporting female leaders. There are so many individuals, organisations and publications supporting women today, it’s a great time for women’s media.
Who is the most interesting/inspiring individual you have interviewed/written about?
I don’t need to think about this one. Dr Nawal El Saadawi, the Arab world’s leading feminist. Nawal is 86, and has spent her life campaigning for women’s rights – against FGM, forced marriage and every law or practice that oppresses women, particularly in the Arab world. She’s written over 50 books, one of which she wrote in prison on toilet paper using a sex worker’s eyeliner from the cell next to her. She’s from Egypt, and so am I, so there was a personal connection too. I interviewed her for an hour and a half a few weeks ago and it changed the way I feel about so many things. She reassured my soul.
How did you hear about Marguerite?
I first heard about it from my friend Holly Hay, who was also featured in the Woman of Influence series. And then talked about it again with Executive Director of Women for Women International, Brita Fernandez Schmidt, another exceptional woman. It’s for women in the know!
What has been your most memorable Marguerite event/experience?
‘Posturing: Photographing the Body in Fashion’, the exhibition curated by Holly Hay and Shonagh Marshall.
What do you do to switch off?
I’m partial to a rave but sadly those nights are winding down as my friends and I enter our thirties, so I make do with dance classes at At Your Beat Studio. I also like watching sad foreign films in the bath.
Do you have an art institution/establishment that you respect most for its exhibition programme?
I love Foam, the photography gallery in Amsterdam. I went to see a Diane Arbus exhibition there and a Francesca Woodman exhibition.
If you could have one art museum to yourself for an evening, which one would it be?
I’d like to spend an evening in the Sistine Chapel.
What has been your favourite exhibition in London so far this year?
I’m a big fan of Shirley Baker’s photography documenting working class life in the 50s and 60s in Manchester. My mum grew up working class in Manchester in the 50s and 60s, so we went together to the new exhibition at The Photographer’s Gallery, and we both cried.
If you could have 4 artists to dinner (dead or alive) who would you chose?
Frida Kahlo, Andy Warhol, Michelangelo and Marina Abramović.
If you could own one work of art what would it be?
I think The Last Judgement by Michelangelo. I was so overwhelmed by it, it put the fear of God in me. I could easily spend the rest of my days staring at that.
What advice would you give a young woman starting out in an Editorial role?
Say yes to every opportunity that scares you.